A plane carrying Brazil’s Cinderella soccer team to the most monumental match in its humble history crashed into a Colombian hillside during a midnight rainstorm, killing 71 people, most of them affiliated with Chapecoense, the little club embraced during its climb from the sport’s lowest rung by a country desperate for good news.
Nineteen players died. Three players, two crew members and one journalist survived. The charter was en route from Bolivia and nearing Medellin on Monday night when it lost electrical power, according to aviation authorities. Photographs of the wreckage show the British Aerospace 146 aircraft split in two, its tail section shattered.
The club from the city of Chapeco in Santa Catarina state was founded in 1973. It won promotion to Brazil’s top division in 2014 after playing in the bottom fourth tier as recently as 2009. Chapecoense was to play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional in the first game of the two-legged Copa Sudamericana final on Wednesday and was to host Nacional on Dec. 7 — but not in its own 22,000-seat stadium, considered too small for such a prestigious championship.
“There were no star players like Ronaldinho or Romario on Chapecoense, but they had a lot of heart,” said Kleberson, one of 12 Brazilian members of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers organization. “It was a Brazilian fairy tale. I have no words to express the pain of this tragedy for the team and for Brazil.”
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Chapecoense was celebrated for its roster of journeymen, compassionate coach and clean management in a league known for rampant corruption.
“I played in Chapeco once and the club has grown up a lot since then,” said Striker goalkeeper Bruno Cardoso, a Sao Paulo native who was teammates with Chapecoense players Ananias and Josimar, and was coached by Chapecoense coach Caio Junior when he played for Palmeiras. He said among the dozens of calls and messages he’s received came word that Junior’s son had missed the flight because he forgot his passport and that one of the surviving players had lost a leg.
“Ananias was friend who was always laughing. If you were in a bad mood, he would cheer you up.”
Kleberson played with Ananias and Cleber Santana during his career in Brazil and was coached by Junior at Flamengo and Bahia.
“He used to tell me when I was 28-29 years old that was a good age because I knew every space on the field,” said Kleberson, who played on Brazil’s 2002 and 2010 World Cup squads.
“In Brazil, soccer is very different because there is so, so, so much incredible pressure, but he tried to relieve the pressure on the players and give us confidence. My wife and I are crying for the guys and their families. Their sons have lost their daddies and their heroes.”
Strikers coach Caio Zanardi was friends with Junior for years — they coached clubs in Dubai at the same time — and he had coached Chapecoense players on Brazil’s junior national teams. “Chape” had given Brazilians reason to rejoice in a year when the country was wracked by political scandal and economic recession.
“Everyone in Brazil was supporting this team,” he said. “It’s terrible for our sport. We take planes all the time. There are risks but it is our life, our work, our passion.”
Chapecoense’s improbable rise was reminiscent of that of Leicester City, a former lower-division club that won England’s Premier League title last season.
Tearful fans gathered inside Chapeco’s Arena Conda stadium Tuesday, wearing the team’s green jersey, and bringing flowers, candles and photos of the players. A video the team posted on its Facebook page showed smiling players on the plane bound for Colombia, blowing kisses and giving the thumb’s up sign.
“Everybody laughed so much, even in defeat,” club board president Plinio David de Nes Filho said on the news show Bom Dia Brasil. “When I said goodbye to them, they said they were going off to make our dreams come true. And in the early hours of this morning, that dream came to an end.”
Atletico Nacional asked CONMEBOL, the South American federation, to award the title to Chapecoense “in posthumous homage to the victims killed in the accident.”
In Brazil, all first division clubs pledged to lend players to Chapecoense for the 2017 season and requested that the national federation not relegate the club for the next three years.
All games were cancelled for a seven-day mourning period.
Italy’s Torino and England’s Manchester United expressed sympathy, having experienced similar tragedies decades ago. A 1949 plane crash killed 22 members of Torino’s team and a 1958 crash upon takeoff from Munich killed 23 members of Man U’s team. A 1961 crash in the Las Lastimas Mountains of Chile killed 10 members of a Chilean soccer club; a 1969 crash in Bolivia killed 19 members of Bolivia’s team; a 1987 crash in Peru killed 17 members of Alianza Lima and a 1993 crash in Gabon killed 23 members of Zambia’s team.
“It’s a destiny that binds us inextricably #ForcaChapecoense, we are with you fraternally,” the Torino Football Club said in a tweet.
This report was supplemented by material from The Associated Press.